by Pete Bodo
It's funny how some gifted players destined to make a mark on the pro tour advance in relative obscurity, especially when compared to more well-known if ultimately less successful peers. Some of this can be explained by the "right place-right time" theory, as in the case of Melanie Oudin. Her persona certainly would be very different from what it is today had she not experienced that remarkable quarterfinal run at the 2009 U.S. Open.
Oudin has had to pay for that moment of glory in the ensuing year-plus, although I doubt she'd trade the experience for, say, the continuing obscurity that would have been her lot had she lost in the first round of the Open. No player knows what fate is going to throw his or her way in the early stages of a career; one can only hope that whatever it is ends up helping them in a fruitful way. The truth always comes out in tennis, which is why even in the event that Oudin never exceeds the success she enjoyed at that Open, the experience will always be a net plus. Besides, nobody can take back your memories—or your achievements. There's no point getting all negative about it. Some fine players will never taste the ambrosia that was Oudin's in 2009.
It's an interesting idea to bat around, now that Coco Vandeweghe has recorded such an impressive run this week in Tokyo at the Toray Pan Pacific Open. Vandeweghe, ranked No. 172 when the event started, slashed her way through five consecutive Top 100 opponents (beginning with two qualifying matches): No. 82 Tathiana Garbin, No. 41 Jarmila Groth, No. 37 Klara Zakopalova, No. 18 Aravane Rezai (who's making a nice living being someone's "good win" every week), and No. 42 Julia Georges. But No. 11 proved too big a number for Vandeweghe to overcome today; she lost to Victoria Azarenka in the quarterfinals, 6-2, 6-1.
We've had ample reason to pay attention to Vandeweghe, but I don't think we've done her justice. After all, her mother Tauna was an Olympic medalist in both swimming and volleyball, and her uncle Kiki was a blue-chip NBA player. But we all know that even the more gifted of families occasionally produces someone best qualified to be the village idiot, so Vandeweghe's bloodlines are by no means a bankable predictor. But some other elements on her resume bode well for her future. She's just 18, for one thing, and she stands 6-1, making the most of it with her dangerous serve. Her record as a junior is relatively modest (her junior career high ranking was No. 18), but taking advantage of a wild card entry into the 2008 U.S. Open junior girls event, she won the whole danged thing—without dropping a set.
That's significant. Perhaps it was the run of a lifetime—her mini-Oudin moment. But anyone capable of making that kind of statement bears watching.
Vandeweghe has been a pro since April 2008, but she's had trouble getting traction on the tour. Some of her losses were by downright ghastly scores (she was hammered, 6-1, 6-0, by Sabine Lisicki—a comparably tall, powerful girl—in the first round of the U.S. Open this year). She clearly has consistency issues, but if all those pieces that don't quite work in concert most of the time suddenly click into place on a regular, or at least greater basis, watch out.
Vandeweghe reminds me a little bit of Lindsay Davenport. She doesn't hit nearly as clean a ball as did Davenport, seemingly from the cradle on, nor did Vandeweghe accumulate anything like Davenport's junior record. But while Davenport's record as a prodigy was unsurpassed, she was somehow easily overlooked, or under-appreciated. She was the thoroughbred that nobody quite believed in, and didn't help her own cause with the low self-esteem and a kind of self-consciousness that can be poisonous for someone who practices her trade in front of countless thousands. Everyone kind of knew that Davenport was, potentially, the next big thing, but nobody talked much about it. And that was long before Davenport won her first major, or revealed her outstanding shortcoming, the failure to elevate her game and desire at the most important moments.
Given her disappointing and even puzzling losses, it's also been easy to overlook Vandeweghe. But let's remember that she rode a 10-match winning streak this spring to her first two titles as a pro (both USTA Pro Circuit events), and that she got to the quarterfinals in San Diego, taking out Vera Zvonareva along the way.
It may all come together for Vandeweghe yet; she's certainly young enough, and her height probably will be more of an advantage as time goes on and she gets more comfortable in her large frame. She's powerful and explosive. She doesn't need to be a model of consistency, she just needs to hit it big—preferably at the right times and in the right places.
Sometimes, it's easier to work your way into the limelight gradually, instead of being hurled into it.